Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

I should have known when my friend Anne Marie recommended this film that it would be good, and when I found that it starred Joan Plowright that it would be very good. But seeing the film, based on the novel by British author Elizabeth Taylor (whose novels I have neglected, at my regret), I find myself in awe at the warmth and love that is displayed by this simple story of a woman, no longer young, all but abandoned by her family in a London retirement hotel. About to be overwhelmed by loneliness the woman strikes up a curious friendship with a young writer and discovers a new life in this friendship. Beautifully acted as I have come to expect from Dame Joan Plowright, this film exudes the feeling of sentiment without being sentimental. The situations depicted are both heart warming and emotionally wrenching. I enjoyed every detail in the lives of the characters and ended the film with a feeling that life is good.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


John Keats was buried on this day in 1821 in Rome, beneath his famous self-written epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats took the line from Beaumont & Fletcher’s 1610 play Philaster, or Love Lies-Ableeding, in which the unreliable King, who is considering executing his own daughter, is warned that “all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ, but this in marble.” Keats remains among my favorite poets with Endymion and the Odes among those poems to which I return with regularity.

A THING of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

The music of Keat's words never fails to transport me to another world of "sweet dreams, and quiet breathing".

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Les Invasions Barbares

The Barbarian Invasions is a masterful and moving film written and directed by Denys Arcand. I am sorry that I missed the film when it was released and won the Oscar for best foreign film in 2004. Fortunately a friend recommended it to me and like most films, both good and bad, it is available on DVD and it is eminently worth renting and watching. I was impressed by the craft of the director as well as the acting, particularly of the central son and father, Sebastien and Remy, played respectively by Stephane Rousseau and Remy Girard. Girard, like several of the other actors had participated in Arcand's earlier film, The Decline of the American Empire, which touched on some of the same themes although not as deeply or with such perspicacity.

Barbarians impressed me with its demonstration of ideas more than its discussion of them, which was somewhat superficial. The ability of the son who was the ultimate capitalist and polar opposite of his father, a trenchant socialist intellectual, to put aside years of estrangement was the core of the film for me. His sensitivity to his father's needs and ability to get things done eventually broke down the barriers between them and led to some of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the movie. Yet the film presented complex issues like sex and love and drug addiction in an objective realistic fashion that transcended the normal stereotypes. This film is one that I will return to and think about for a long time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fresh Woods and Pastures

Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell, into yet more unfrequented parts of the town, "to fresh woods and pastures new," or, while the sun was setting, made my supper of huckleberries and blueberries on Fair Haven Hill, and laid up a store for several days. - Thoreau, Walden

To fresh woods and pastures new my mind wanders as I contemplate the view
from my window. This window, this room, a life that is no longer new
as it was many years ago when I first moved to this place.

What vistas are there, in and beyond the woods and pastures I conjure
with my mind? Conjuring, thinking, viewing inward I seem inured
to the quotidian events of daily life.

The images of these scenes become the source of sustenance
for the future of my dwelling in this life. They enhance
the day even as the sun sets on my existence.

(New Poems, 2008)

Here it stands: A poem, poetic thought, rambling draft for a future poem.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Middle of the Journey

Lionel Trilling

The Middle of the Journey is a novel of ideology and ideas. Written in 1947 and set in the years just preceding, it details the lives of several characters, including a protagonist, John Laskell, who is conflicted about his life, his friends and the ideology that influences them. His friend Gifford Maxim has left the Communist Party and the book contains dialogues among the characters and him about this, and other seemingly more mundane matters, which take up most of the story. Exceptionally well-written, with literary references, symbolism (undoubtedly much of which I did not grasp) and slowly-built suspense, this singular novel by the noted essayist, educator and critic Lionel Trilling, is a challenging and interesting book to read. While Trilling, according to the introduction to the NYRB edition, was impressed by the work of Faulkner and Hemingway among American writers, I found his style reminded me more of the early Henry James.

The Middle of the Journey by Lionel Trilling. New York Review Books, New York. 2002 (1947)

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Brothers Karamazov

My slow group reading and discussion of Dostoevsky's great novel is continuing as we enter the last quarter of the novel. Yesterday our discussion focused on Book Ten entitled simply "Boys". The most important and interesting boy is Kolya Krasotkin who dominates the section with his actions and his feelings for Alyosha. Among the various themes the notion of the nature of spirituality and rationality comes to the fore in this section. The nature of rationality, while connected with science and an atheistic viewpoint (cf. Ivan) is really quite complex. Interestingly we see the arguments of Alyosha and Kolya mirroring those of Ivan and Zossima from earlier in the story. Perhaps most importantly we find, in the depiction of Kolya's response to the sick boy, Ilyusha, an image of the human condition and some idea of Dostoevsky's view of human character. We are left with an image of growth in the characters both of Kolya and Alyosha and look forward to the coming confrontations Alyosha is sure to have with Ivan and his other brothers.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Richard Pevear & Laura Volokhonsky, trans. North Point Press, San Francisco. 1990 (1881).

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Red and The Black

This is the story of Julien Sorel, a young man from the provinces of France who is inflamed with the passion of youth, a passion for the ideals of the Napoleonic age, but whose greatest passion is his ambition which takes him to the heights and sets in motion his tragic fall. Stendhal is able to present his narrative with unmatched, for his time, psychological depth and realism. The love affairs of Julien and the political intrigues in which he participates are spellbinding for the reader even today. This novel truly presents a "mirror" of reality and provides a challenge for the reader. The story presents a protagonist torn between his passion for the ideal of Napoleon represented by the red of the cavalry dragoons and the black of the bishops of the church. Ultimately he finds hypocrisy on all sides and turns upon one of his loves while rejecting his only true friend. This is still an exciting, even exhilarating read and truly a great book for all time.

The Red and The Black by Stendhal. Trans. by Burton Raffel. Modern Library, New York. 2003 (1830)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Gem of a Play

Dolly West's Kitchen

by Frank McGuinness

TimeLine Theatre Company has produced a gem of a play from the pen of the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. His play presents questions of national, sexual and personal identity within the framework of Irish Catholic traditions. Set during the second world war, the joy and sadness of Dolly, her family and friends who join her from over the seas permeate her kitchen centered in a neutral Ireland. There is nothing neutral about the feelings of the family from the mother toward her daughters and son to the tangled desires that are unveiled during the course of the evening. These form the center of this dramatic comedy which depicts with sensitive humanity a sense of humor, life and death. Both Kat McDonnell (Dolly) and Kathleen Ruhl (her mother Rima) stand out among an excellent cast. The direction was taut and effective; while I particularly enjoyed the music, both during the play and the interludes. You do not need a bit of Irish blood to respond to this moving play.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Boulez: Stravinsky & Berlioz

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Pierre Boulez, performed Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky last Saturday evening. Before the intermission mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang Les nuits d'ete, op. 7 of Hector Berlioz. Both works were performed with artistic excellence and controlled power. The Stravinsky piece, premiered in 1911, was written just two years before his revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps. There were moments that foreshadowed the music that was to come as the orchestra brought out the many voices of the shrovetide fair that provided the setting for the story line of Petrushka. Stravinsky's subtle blend of folk song motifs with not so subtle, jarringly modern harmonies still sounds modern to my ears. But it has become a familiar sound, part of the cultural milieu of the twentieth century just as the music of Berlioz, once revolutionary as well, had become an integral part of nineteenth century culture. The Chicago Symphony was in fine form once more with these great musical achievements.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Loss of Innocence

Journey's End
by R. C. Sherriff

Last night I viewed a performance of Journey's End, the classic play set during the Great War, at the Theater Building in Lakeview. The Griffin Theatre Company production is both powerful and moving. All of the actors provide focused performances making their characters come alive on the stage as the drama unfolds. I was impressed with the contrast between the the avuncular Lieutenant Osborne (Nigel Patterson, who I have seen previously in Timeline Theater's The General from America) and the broken Captain Stanhope (Hans Fleishman) who embodies the bitterness and destruction of War in his every moment on stage. The other key role is the young 2nd Lieutenant Raliegh (John Dixson), whose innocence and hero worship of Stanhope (whom he knew as a student before the War) is destroyed by the reality of the battle. The power of this play is ever present and the actors demonstrate throughout the real emotion that must have been omni-present on the battlefield. Whether in moments of forced laughter or the brief but important interjections of silence on the stage, the drama of Journey's End is brought home in excellent fashion by this production.